<I>Behar-Bechukotai</I>: Slavery and Indentured Servitude

If indeed Judaism gave the world the idea and the ideal of freedom - "I am the Lord thy G-d who took thee out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage" - how can we justify the fact that our Bible accepts the institution of slavery and even legislates proper and improper treatment of slaves?

Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin,

rabbi riskin.jpg
rabbi riskin.jpg
Arutz 7
If indeed Judaism gave the world the idea and the ideal of freedom - "I am the Lord thy G-d who took thee out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage" - how can we justify the fact that our Bible accepts the institution of slavery and even legislates proper and improper treatment of slaves? Why did not our Torah abolish slavery absolutely? And this leads to an even more basic question: is the legislated Biblical morality a minimal expression of the expected conduct in inter-personal relationships, or is it the ideal and maximal expression? Is our legal system the floor or the ceiling of the Temple, meant to connect all of humanity as one?

If we compare the laws of the Hebrew slave as found in Mishpatim (Exodus 21:2-6) to the laws of the Hebrew slave as found in our Biblical reading of Behar (Leviticus 25:39-47), then our analysis may lead to a meaningful answer to ourquestions.

At first blush, the two primary sources appear to be in conflict with each other. The portion of Mishpatim tells us that 1) if one purchases a Hebrew slave, he may only be enslaved for six years; he must be completely freed at the advent of the seventh year (Exodus 21:2); 2) this passage permits the owner to provide the slave with a Gentile servant as his wife during his period of enslavement, stipulating that the children of this union will remain the Gentile slaves of the owner after the Hebrew slave (father) is freed (Exodus 21:4); and 3) if the Hebrew slave desires to remain in bondage longer than the six-year period - "because he loves his master, his wife, his children" - then he may continue to be enslaved "forever" according to the literal meaning of the text, or until the Jubilee fiftieth year, according to our Talmudic sages; however, he must first submit to having his ear pierced at the doorpost of the mezuzah, so that the message of G-d's dominion ("Hear O Israel the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is one"), rather than human mastery, is not lost upon him (Exodus 21:5,6).

A very different picture seems to emerge from the passage in Behar. Here, the Bible emphasizes the fact that we are not dealing with slavery as it was understood in ancient times:
If your brother has come upon unfortunate circumstances and is sold to you, you may not enslave him with the servitude of a slave; he must be like a hired residential worker with you, and he shall work with you until the Jubilee fiftieth year. Because they (hired residential workers) are (also no less than you) My servants whom I have taken out of the land of Egypt, they may not be sold as one sells a slave (in the larger, Gentile society surrounding the Israelites). You shall not rule over them harshly; you must fear your G-d. (Leviticus 39-43)
You are not to have slaves, our text is proclaiming; you are merely to have hired residential workers.

And then if one examines the second text we are analyzing, the literal words from the passage of Behar, one notes that 1) there doesn't seem to be a time limit of six years; the length of time of employment would seem to be dependant upon the contract between employer and employee; 2) this passage doesn't seem to mention anything about the employer providing a Gentile servant as wife; 3) nor does it ordain any piercing of the ear for a longer stay of employment. It does tell us in no uncertain terms that our Bible is not compromising with slavery. It only provides for hired residential workers.

The Talmud - which transmits the Oral Law, some of which emanated from Sinai and some of which was interpreted and extracted by the religious leadership of our people - teaches that each of these Biblical passages is dealing with a different kind of "servant" (Kidushin 14a): the first (in Mishpatim) is a criminal who must be rehabilitated, a thief who doesn't have the means to restore his theft to its proper owner. Such an individual is put "on sale" by the Religious Court, which is seeking a family to undertake the responsibility of rehabilitation. After all, the criminal is not a degenerate, his crime is not a "high risk" or sexual offense, and it is hoped that a proper family environment, which provides nurture as well as gainful employment (with severance pay at the end of the six-year period), will put him back on his feet. He is not completely free since the Religious Court has ruled that he must be "sold", but one can forcefully argue that such a "familial environment, half-way house" form of rehabilitation is far preferable to jail incarceration. The family must receive compensation - and this, in the form of the work performed by the servant as well as the children who will remain after he is freed - and the criminal himself must be taught how to live respectfully in a free society.

The second passage in Behar is dealing with a very different situation, wherein an individual cannot find gainful employment and he is freely willing to sell the work of his hands. The Bible is here emphasizing that there is absolutely no room for slavery in such a case; the person may only be seen as a hired, residential laborer, who himself may choose the duration of his contract, and his "person" is not "owned" in any way by his employer. Hence, he can not be "given" a wife, and of course any children he may father are his children and not his employer's children.

There may also be a second way of viewing these two passages. Rabbi Nahum Rabinowitz, Dean of Yeshivat Birkat Moshe, suggests in a far-reaching article (published in the second volume of Edah) that slavery, as well as polygamy, underwent serious revision within Jewish Law. There were many concepts that our Torah felt could only be introduced in stages, ideas that even the Israelite world was not ready to accept at the time of the Sinai Revelation.

The first passage in Mishpatim comes at the very dawn of Jewish history, still utilizing the term eved (slave or servant), but transforming its significance profoundly. It places a time limit for the service of rehabilitating "criminals" and impresses upon them the value of freedom by piercing the ear of one who wishes to remain beyond the legislated time. The second passage is taught after Israel has begun to come of age, has learned the laws of the Sabbatical year and Jubilee freedom, and is therefore ready to hear that slavery is abolished and a hired residential worker - who dare not be treated in a servile manner - has taken its place.

This development is likewise true in the case of a Gentile slave. The Bible provides for such a status in the verses immediately following our passage of analysis (Leviticus 25:43 ff); after all, one may be farsighted if he is one step beyond his generation, but he becomes a fool once he takes that second step. Remember that a Gentile slave is the first stage in conversion to Judaism, since a Gentile slave must be circumcised (if male), go to mikveh for ritual immersion, and accept all the commandments except the positive commands determined by time. And in the immortal words of Maimonides (the end of the "Laws of Gentile Slaves"):
It is (Biblically) permitted to treat a Gentile slave servilely and despite the fact that this is the law, traits of piety and ways of wisdom ordain that a person be compassionate and pursue righteousness.... The (employer) must feed (the Gentile slave) with all the food and drink (that he feeds himself). He may not treat him with scorn or speak to him with excessive shouting or anger. He must speak to him calmly and always listen to his complaint. "Is it not true that the one who made me, made him, and prepared us all from one womb?" And so it is said..., "The Almighty shows compassion to all of his creatures, and anyone of His creatures who shows compassion shall receive compassion."

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